In some respects, the Rockets have been among the NBA’s most stable franchises for the greater part of the past decade. Houston has logged eight straight playoff appearances in the James Harden era, reaching at least the conference semifinals in four consecutive seasons. Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey engineered a system uniquely suited for their superstar. They doubled down on their strategy when others would have retreated, often to great success. Both architects are now gone. The franchise faces a potential crossroads, with the back-half of Harden’s prime now at stake.
It’s worth briefly looking back at Morey’s tenure with the Rockets before examining the team he’s left behind. Houston’s now-former general manager joined a franchise stuck in neutral 13 years ago, as the Rockets entered the 2007-08 season with three first-round exits in the previous four years. Morey didn’t bring the Rockets immediately into title contention, but the evidence of his brilliance was evident from the outset. Morey traded for Shane Battier and drafted Aaron Brooks. He mined value from Chuck Hayes and discovered Luis Scola. Morey’s ability to win on the margins gave Houston a leg-up, even without superior talent.
Yet despite his success with scrappy underdogs, Morey understood Houston wouldn’t truly ascend in the West without a superstar talent. And in October 2012, he made his gamble. Morey traded Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a trio of draft picks to Oklahoma City in exchange for James Harden, and nearly a decade later, the decision has made Houston into a perennial contender. Acquiring Harden allowed Morey to execute his vision with a flourish, relying on three pointers and a binge diet of isolation ball. The decision didn’t lead to a championship, but it’s hard to call the Morey-Harden partnership anything other than a success. Morey’s successor enters with a superior situation, albeit one with significant complicating factors.
Most open GM spots come with a certain amount of freedom. The incoming decision maker can choose his coach and flip the roster with relative ease, often in a rebuilding situation. None of those presumed perks will be present with the Rockets. Morey is expected to help the Rockets complete their head coaching search, and more importantly, the composition of Houston’s roster doesn’t make for a simple transition. Take a look at the Rockets’ cap sheet, and a hard pivot is highly unlikely.
The Rockets enter the 2020 offseason with little flexibility and plenty of financial commitments. James Harden will earn over $41 million next season, then $44 million in 2021-22 before he can opt out of his deal. Russell Westbrook will receive $47 million in 2022-23 barring a strange decision to opt out. And it’s not just the supermax commitments that weigh on Houston’s cap sheet. Eric Gordon still has three years and $54 million left on his deal. A potential extension could await P.J. Tucker. This is a roster that needs refinement more than an overhaul given the salary situation at hand.
That distinction is what makes Morey’s departure decidedly difficult for the Rockets. Morey’s trade for Robert Covington in February led to Houston’s best basketball of the season. The signing of Jeff Green kept Houston’s small-ball experiment afloat. From Battier to Trevor Ariza to Covington, Morey has consistently mined the most out of the available talent pool. Replicating that excellence is far easier said than done.
Morey’s departure marks the end of an era of sorts for the Rockets, though the roster as currently constructed won’t be imploded overnight. Any idea of a James Harden trade is more fantasy than reality. Russell Westbrook’s trade value is hard to parse, and even if a suitor arrived, it’s likely more worthwhile for Houston to give its two MVPs one more shot at a deep playoff run. Morey seemed to always have the next move up his sleeve, an impact addition on the way. His work has made the current Rockets a fringe Finals contender, one with the requisite firepower to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. If his successor can’t do the same, the Harden era is likely to end in disappointment.